Will gyms go way of arcades, movie rental stores? Many struggling or gone for good

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Going to the gym was always part of Kari Hamra’s routine until last year’s government-ordered shutdowns forced her to replace the workouts with daily rides on her Peloton stationary bike.

That’s when she discovered something surprising — she did not miss the gym. At least not the driving back and forth, filling water bottles, changing clothes and most of all, taking time away from her husband and two boys.

Now that her gym in Springfield, Missouri, is open again, she’s slowly returning. But finding a more convenient exercise schedule at home and seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases in her hometown this summer have her questioning how much she needs the gym. She figures that if there never had been a coronavirus outbreak “I would still be a gym rat.”

The pandemic has reshaped how Americans exercise and upended the fitness industry, accelerating the growth of a new era of high-tech home workout equipment and virtual classes.

Thousands of small fitness centers and studios that were forced to close a year ago now are gone for good. Others are struggling to stay afloat and have redesigned their spaces, turned toward more personal workouts and added online training.

The question is: Can they survive the onslaught from the apps and pricey bikes and treadmills or will they go the way of arcades, video rental shops and bookstores?

<p>Cindy Cicchinelli uses her Peloton exercise machine in the workout room of her Pittsburgh townhouse. After going to her gym in Pittsburgh for years, she said she has become a dedicated Peloton user, and the convenience is what sold her.</p>

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Cindy Cicchinelli uses her Peloton exercise machine in the workout room of her Pittsburgh townhouse. After going to her gym in Pittsburgh for years, she said she has become a dedicated Peloton user, and the convenience is what sold her.

Interactive fitness equipment maker Peloton is betting the workout-from-home trend is here to stay. It broke ground Monday on its first U.S. factory just outside Toledo, Ohio, where it plans to begin production in 2023 and employ 2,000 workers.

Demand surged so much during the pandemic that some Peloton customers had to wait months for their bikes. While the company said the backlog has waned, it reported that sales have continued to soar, up 141% in the first three months of this year.

Company founder and CEO John Foley thinks it’s inevitable that technology-driven home fitness will become dominant much like how streaming services have changed movie watching, calling the idea of going to a gym “a broken model of yesteryear.”

Its next steps include bringing more of its equipment into gyms at hotels, apartment complexes, and college campuses and launching new workouts through its app. Late last year, it acquired Precor, a company with manufacturing and product development sites in the U.S.

“Fitness is one of the few remaining categories that is going to be massively disrupted by a digital experience,” Foley told The Associated Press.

During the early months of the pandemic, most small and independent gyms and studios turned to Zoom and other video platforms for yoga and Pilates classes and training sessions because it was the only way they could connect with their members.

“Now there’s an expectation for it,” said Michael Stack, CEO of Applied Fitness Solutions, which has three fitness centers in southeast Michigan.

Small gyms can’t match the production quality and visual appeal of the high-tech companies, but they can counter with online offerings that feature personal attention and closer relationships between their members and staff, he said.

“I think that’s the way we even the playing field,” Stack said.

Not all gym operators are convinced virtual training will play a significant role in what they offer.

“We don’t have the budget to do it at the same price and the same quality,” said Jeff Sanders, CEO of Apex Athletic Health Club in Penfield, New York. “Digital is great, but we’ve seen surveys that show people want to stay active, but miss the interaction and being around others.”

Roughly 9,000 health clubs — 22% of the total nationwide — have closed since the beginning of the virus outbreak and 1.5 million workers lost their jobs, according to the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

The industry group is lobbying Congress to approve a $30 billion relief fund for the fitness industry because many clubs are struggling to recover from months of lost revenue and membership declines and still owe back rent.

While more closings are likely this year and could number in the thousands without government help, the emergence of the workout-from-home trend won’t spell doom for the fitness centers, said Helen Durkin, the association’s executive vice president of public policy.

Plenty of exercise fanatics, she said, will still do both — 40% of Peloton users have gym memberships, according to the company.

Cindy Cicchinelli, who’s become a dedicated Peloton user after going to her gym in Pittsburgh for years, said the convenience is what has sold her.

“I can roll out of bed and not worry about running to the gym,” she said. “And I don’t have to add an extra half-hour for my commute.”